Take two

It would be day three of bush camp before I would use the shovel. Digging my own hole for ablutions had not been something I was looking forward to. Desperate, I had to wait till nightfall. I sat anxiously in my tent, thinking through each careful step.We had received an email before the trip started with toliet instructions and as I recalled the key points the need to get to it became more and more urgent. Eventually darkness set in, a shovel became free (it seems we all wait till dark if we can!) and off I went. Hi ho, hi ho… it’s off to poo I go!

I walked quite a distance from camp.I did not want to be caught with my pants down – literally! I dug as deep as the depth of the shovel and carefully sat down my loo roll, toliet wipes and lighter and with remarkable ease set about my business -well, it had been three days! Phew.

Eventually I became used to the ritual and came to find that going off to use the loo was perhaps the one real chance for quiet and own space.As I’ve mentioned before there are more than 50 riders plus staff and with little shade in many of our camps we are often all crammed together taking shelter behind the truck at the end of our rides. Personal space is not easy to find. Further, given the fact that many people are often sat infront of the shovel storage area it is hard to be discreet regarding ones bodily functions. There simply is no chance to be embarassed.

All was going well and then a few challenges set in.

Challenge one – the sandstorm. The wind was strong and the sand actually hurt as it hit your skin. Tonight I was waiting not just till nightfall but also until the gale had dropped slightly. Even going for a pee had been hard enough – one thing you don’t want is gritty sand in your cycle shorts! Predictably night-time came but unfortunately there was no let up in the wind. The storm had even meant planes had been forced to land elsewhere. Holding onto toliet paper would be tough. Needless to say. I failed. Fortunately I had crossed the road from camp so while dirty toilet paper had gone flying it would not head in the direction of the tents. What a relief. I quickly mastered the technique of wipe, ditch and cover with sand to avoid the paper escaping. It was too windy however to use the lighter. All I can do is my best I guess.

Challenge two – solid dry ground. As we came into Ethiopia the depth of sand reduced. We were camping on rock. Not only is this a problem for tent pags but digging a hole became virtually impossible. Using the shoval like a pick axe I managed two inches but as we moved on digging was not possible at all. You now knew where people had been to the loo by recognising small piles of dry matter/dirt topped off with a stone. “X” marks the spot.

Challenge three – hot, arid areas. To date (aside from the windy day) the disposal of toilet paper came through burning. This had been no problem at all. However, as holes were undiggable so too earth to douse the flames was no longer avaialble. Twice I feared setting the country and camp on fire. Embers still glowing, I covered things up, placed my stone on top and headed back to my tent. Could you imagine explaining that one!

We were told as we headed into Ethiopia that we would start using toliet tents. There were simply too many inquisitive locals. The toliet break would no longer provide personal space – apparently this was worth watching!! Given this would reduce the need for digging and provide a bin for waste paper, thereby meaning wind and fires had also now been mitigated, I was quite pleased. Infact, while embarassed about the return of the wind (mine this time not the weather!) I was proud to be able to add something solid the first evening they were available – most of the camp were suffering with upset stomachs! Unfortunately this would become all too apparent the following morning – some people had missed!

We’re in a hotel right now. Western style facilities. I guess we’ll all just have to become accustomed to the new camp ensuite facilities.

Captain, my captain.

I remember riding my bike as a child, primarily in school holidays. As an only child I would often amuse myself in long summer breaks, back in the days when children were allowed to play. Most frequently I would ride through quiet lanes to Cotwall End , a local nature reserve in my home town of Dudley. Looking back I remember the freedom and ability to get myself around that was the great appeal of my very own two wheels. Despite this I was never keen on sport as I got older and the fact that I am now exploring the world in this way would come as a big surprise to many. One day I’ll have to do a blog based around my old sports school reports!

These days I have six bikes in my collection. For many folk they would question this. Two tourers, a tandem, a cheap city bike, an off roader and a folding bike. To date they’ve all served me pretty well but given the number of miles now covered on my newest trusty stead I thought it was about time to do an Ode to The Captain. A number of people have asked me how I’m finding the bike so I thought I’d do this update.

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For those who have yet to be introduced “The Captain” is my world touring bike – a custom built Koga Signature. (you can read my blog from June 2012 for a full spec). With his black aluminium frame, butterfly bars, Brooks saddle, dual pedals (SPD and flat sided), Rohloff hub gears and a carbon belt drive he is one smart machine.

I chose the frame size based on my Dawes Super Galaxy – another bike I had done many miles on and found very comfortable. The Brooks saddle, now well worn in, has been as comfortable as a seat can be when riding and average of 80/85 miles per day and to date I have used chamois cream only once, applied antiseptic cream only twice and have a bum that’s bearing up pretty well. To take the bumpier roads into account and indeed an increase in the distances I would cover I added suspension and butterfly bars. While there is not as much give in the suspension forks as perhaps my much lighter mountain bike may have offered in recent off road sections the suspension forks were a critical addition and have proved reliable so far both on this trip and on the Annapurna circuit. This bike has certainly been put to the test. Dual pedals have allowed me, as a sightly nervous off roader to remain unclipped on tricky section,s though care has still been needed on wet days as metal slips on metal – the only other shoes I have being flip flops and crocs – not neccesarily suitable for a long ride.

Hub gears were new to me. Initially I was going to go with the standard derailleur system. I am so pleased I made the change to the Rohloff. After the initial 4,500 miles of stage one I (well, Edinburgh Bike-Co-op) undertook an oil change ready for the Africa leg. I watched and will emabark on this myself after another 5,000 miles. While I had one afternoon where i strugged to get into the granny gear to climb to Kumbalgargh fort in India simply reconnecting the cable to the hub after a quick clean fixed the issue. Since then the range of gears available has got me over 2502m climbs and along long flats with strong tailwinds. While on odd occasions speed has been hampered as I could not pedal fast enough overall the ratio has proved well.

Perhaps the part of my bike that has been of most interest has been the belt drive. It brings many a mechanic out for a look, even a photo. Like a motorbike with no engine and not as fast has become a standard reply. I still of course have to wait to determine reliablity up to 70,000km but the need for much less maintenance, clean and also therefore no need to carry lube all get a top vote from me. This was especially true the day after a sandstorm. It was on the off road, gravel and sand that the belt drive was not perfect however. The pedals felt sticky and the belt was noisy as I cycled across off road Sudan. While a quick wash with water was a quick remedy it did not take long before poeple heard me coming again. Back on tarmac again all is fine and I hope the belt has not suffered – there is more off road to come.

Last but not least – the bell – (in reply to a special request as to how the dinosaur is from Jared and Aden Harris – aged 4 and 7 respectively). Dino, my sqeaky hooter purchased in Astoria, USA, sat comfortably on my handle bars for stage one of my trip. Unfortunately India and its incessant horn culture took its toll and while Dino remained in position until I returned back to the UK having lost his voice it was time for a replacement. So, my new bell (given to me courtesy of Fred William bicycles, Wolverhampton, UK) is big silver and makes a fantastic ding dong.

So, on that note – that’s my review. Here’s hoping all stays well. Riding begins again tomorrow.

8 gruelling days

To date on the trip from Cairo rest days have come round fairly fast and given the pace at which we’ve been riding they have been more than welcome. The section from Kartoum to Addis (Sudan through to Ethiopia) are noted as some of the toughest days of the tour. Sections are rated 1 to 5 in various aspects (cultural interest/wildlife/difficulty) and the second section we began on February 1st is rated 5 for difficulty. With 8 days straight, 869.5 km to cover, 271 off road, a border to cross and hills to climb these were set to be challenging days.

Despite having another 160 km (100mile) day it was to be the off road days that would really test me to the hilt. We set out on the first of these days in our usual group – me, John, Gus and Irin. We were planning to stick together until we reached camp. It would be a long hot day, 45 degrees and we would get into camp much later than normal. While we had no punctures in our group on route John stopped to help 3 others. Thorns were the order of the day and while they were found in tyres we were lucky. Some folk had 10 punctures that day! I had a slow puncture 10km from camp and was able to get in without needing to do a repair on the road. Much easier.

The second day for me however pushed me hard. While the Annapurna circuit in Nepal has been, and at the moment, still remains the toughest test I have undertaken, this second day on off road would be the single hardest day of riding I have ever done. The tracks through corn fields were like solid corregated cardboard and I felt every single bump. While the rear faired okay it was the forearms that just hurt from constant tremoring.  OUCH. I was much slower off road. There were breaks from the bumping – gravel! The 18kg tourer, while having front suspension, just sunk in deep patches and keeping the wheels turing fast was key though even then getting off and walking were at times the only options. I wish had done that in the gravel patch just before lunch. As I fell sideways into the pit it was the final straw. A grazed knee, a shattered Miss J and I just burst into tears. We had another 10km to lunch and another 54km from there to camp. It was thanks to Irin and my own stubborness that  I made it in that evening. 515pm – just in time for dinner!

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The third day off road, while including sections of the dreaded corregation, was also more scenic and brought with it some glorious rides through small villages. An amazing welcome – children clapping and waving – I only had two of them smack my bum! Today would be my day to get Irin to camp. This really was group effort. We arrived a little earlier but it was clear on arrival that many people were suffering from heat exhaustion. The temperature for the past two days had been 49.5 degrees. Fortunately, while we had been out for long days in the sun, we stopped regularly, walked sections to cool down if needed (often in the corregation zones!) and drank, and drank and drank. We were pleased to arrive at the finish and as with the day before, John met us with cold drinks. He had pushed hard, arriving at 145pm. Amazing.


The first day back on tarmac felt fantastic and my legs were feeling strong. Despite a headwind I rode hard and did 60km in 2 hrs 22 minutes coming in second for the girls. That felt great and a good reward for a hard push. While not in as a racer (we could chose between being a racer expedition rider) it’s still good to have days of stretching yourself. That would continue over the next two days until we reached our rest days in Gondar.

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The scenery in Ethiopia would change dramatically. We were out of flat rides through deserts and out of rural Sudan – we were heading for the hills. I love the challenge of hill riding and the views always make it worthwhile. Perhaps the best comparision to make for a non cyclist is that long, flat roads feel like motorway driving – you make good ground but it can be long going. In addition to having more to see, riding in the hills means varying speeds, gear changes and the need to be much more alert. Gliding downwards, swooping through the scene, waving at children and the sense of accomplishment on reaching peaks – that’s riding.

The last day into Gondor would set the final challnge of the 8 days with a 2502m climb. With 102km from camp to the hotel it would be a long hot day. The morning was glorious and while there were some steep climbs I would reach lunch happy – despite there being only 2 cheese triangles left (the other option is nearly always tinned tuna, jam or peanut butter – three of my worst foods – yuck!). The afternoon would see the thermastat rising and the hills continuing. It would be a different challnge as in addition to many smiling kids there were also a fair few armed with sticks and stones. We were advised to ride in groups and it certainly put a different slant on Ethiopia. While aware this was likely, when kids as young as 5/6 seem to have it against you it can be incredibly disparaging, you just have to remember the many big brown eyes and smiles of the others. We stopped for cold drinks during the afternoon and as the crowd gathered, many children and adults smiled and made us welcome – much like the chai stops of India and Nepal. I had missed elements of that so far  – it’s not all bad!

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Anyhow, I finally arrived at the hotel after a long steep climb. Unfortunately I was met with bad news. John had been taken very ill at 77km. He arrived in the jeep and was put on a drip. This heat can be brutal. I went off to find my buddy to give him a big hug and see how he was doing. He still felt weak but I’m happy that today he is starting to get his energy and appetite back and on a final note, I got a cold beer. That felt well deserved. I may just have another….